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Passing game a priority for new offensive coordinator

Take a glance at the Big Sky Conference team passing leaders from 1992-2000 and it's pretty much the same thing: Montana, Montana, Montana.

The one anomaly occurred in 1997 when Rob Phenicie's Cal State Northridge offense lit up the air to the tune of a league-best 358.1 yards per game.

"Being at a school that was probably considered a have-not in the Big Sky, you wanted to pattern yourself after the best team in the conference,'' said Phenicie, Montana's new offensive coordinator. "When we were there, Montana was the best. Our goal was to be one step ahead of Montana in everything we did offensively.''

Phenicie and Montana's fans would love nothing more than to see the Grizzlies return to their Air Bear days of old. Since averaging 370 passing yards per game in 1999, Montana slipped all the way down to 236.7 in 2001. Each of the last two seasons, UM finished in the bottom half of team passing in the Big Sky.

"If I had my druthers I'd like it to look just like Coach (Don) Read and Dave Dickenson and all those cats doing it again,'' Phenicie said. "But if we have to run the ball 80 times in a row to win the game, it's a W. I enjoy throwing the ball around a little bit.''

Montana's offense will likely be more multiple than the Read offenses of the early-to-mid 1990s. During scrimmages, the Grizzlies have used two, three and four wide receiver sets. They've also made use of their H-backs and tight ends.

"Hopefully, we'll be unpredictable,'' Phenicie said. "(Other coaches) will sit down and watch the film on Sunday and on Tuesday they'll still be scratching their heads. Hopefully, they'll have to run two basic things and not throw an entire package at us.''

Phenicie, Wyoming's passing game coordinator last season, said much of the passing game he brought with him includes many looks that were successful during his two-year run at Northridge.

Phenicie said Dave Schramm, the tight ends and offensive tackles coach, brought much of the running game package with him from San Diego State. In Schramm's final season at San Diego State in 2001, running back Larry Ned averaged 140.8 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in I-A.

"We talked about what we wanted in an offensive philosophy and what he wants and what I want are very similar,'' said Griz coach Bobby Hauck, who was a graduate assistant with Phenicie at UCLA. "We like a lot of the same things in the throwing game and we like a lot of the same things in the running game. We may differ a little bit in the running game philosophy, but it's minor.''

Griz junior wide receiver Tate Hancock, who led the team with six touchdown catches last season, said the new offense is very different for the receivers. On passing plays, the receivers will have three different route options. The quarterbacks and receivers will determine the route based on the defensive coverage.

"The quarterbacks and receivers are going to have to really be on top of what we're doing and come together and make the right reads,'' Hancock said. "We run some of the same routes, but for the most part they are different. It takes some getting used to. We're working on it hard. It's starting to come.''

Just who will engineer the offense remains to be the $64,000 question. Juniors Jeff Disney and Craig Ochs have battled neck-and-neck this spring. A decision on the starter likely won't be made until fall.

"Usually if you get in a situation like this, one guy will cower a little bit,'' Phenicie said. "Both have stepped up and accepted the challenge and said, 'I'm going to be the guy, no I'm going to be the guy.' Their grades are so close to each other, it drives you crazy.''

Phenicie said he's not ruling out a two-quarterback system. He said he'll consult with other coaches he knows this summer to gain perspective.

"Another thing we'll do is we'll put a ballot in the Missoulian and let you guys pick the one,'' Phenicie said with a laugh. "That way, when things don't go right, I'll turn around and boo you.''

Phenicie said he's ready to face the fire that comes with the job. He's aware of the Ron Richards fiasco that ushered in the Joe Glenn era in 2000. Montana lost 10-9 to Hofstra in Glenn's opener and Billy Cockhill replaced Richards in the box the next week. Richards resigned following the season.

"Hopefully what will happen is if and when we score a lot of points and win games, the kids will get the credit, which they deserve'' Phenicie said. "When we don't score 30 points, which is our goal, it will be my fault. I shoulder that responsibility. It's my job to get the kids prepared in that manner. I'm prepared for that. I'd rather have that than apathy.''

Phenicie said while at Northridge he and his wife Jennifer used to talk about how great it would be to coach at Montana one day. He came close in 1999, interviewing for the offensive coordinator job that eventually went to Bob Cole.

"I'm fortunate to be part of the tradition here,'' Phenicie said. "Hopefully, we'll make a new chapter in the history of this place. It's awesome.''

Reporter Jon Kasper can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at jkasper@missoulian.com.

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